Film – My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did

My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did

Steve Taylor-Bryant takes on a documentary from the Debate category of the BFI London Film Festival that is sure to upset as much as it educates. My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did…

Director: David Evans
Starring: Phillipe Sands, Niklas Frank, Horst von Wächter
[Fathers: Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter]


The documentary starts with renowned Human Rights Lawyer Phillipe Sands’ narration and the thought “Imagine what it must be like growing up as the child of a mass murderer”. From this very statement right through to the end of the 92 minute long film you know that this is not just your average war documentary. As a young child in school, I developed a love of history and studied the Second World War as many of you reading this will have done. However, part of my childhood also involved living in what was then West Germany and visiting the East. Between my own experiences of living in the nation and the history which was taught to me as just facts, dates and places, I never really took an in-depth and emotional view on the actions of the Nazi Party. I have always found the German people to be a gracious and loving community and, even as a forty year old man, I didn’t really think about the work that must have gone into becoming this and fighting off the shackles of the past over seventy years. I never thought about the burden that many Germans must have felt, trying to convince the world they were not just the children of their fathers but people in their own right who won’t make those mistakes again. This documentary went a long way to allowing me to feel that burden, if only for a short time, and I warn you now it is not a feeling you want to have for long and this is not a film that easily watched.

Phillipe Sands was researching a book on the Nuremberg Trials when he managed to put two German SS Officers together in the same place that had the responsibility for massacring his family. Those men were Hans Frank, who started out as Adolf Hitler’s personal Lawyer before becoming Governor General of Occupied Poland, and Otto von Wächter who started as one of Frank’s deputies before becoming Governor of Occupied Krakow and rising to Governor of Galicia, which is a region in Ukraine today. The documentary sees both sons of these men talking candidly about their fathers’ fingerprints on history but with very different viewpoints. Niklas Frank hates his father, what he stood for, and is under no illusions that his father carried out genocide amongst other war crimes, and there is Horst von Wächter, who loves his father, has great memories of his childhood and, whilst he will apologise for the atrocities of the Nazis, he won’t hold his own father responsible, stating there has never been documented proof of his direct involvement, thinking instead that his father was just an employee who would have been killed himself had he not done what he did.

There is footage of the public debate in London, with both Niklas and Horst taking questions from an audience, hosted by the Financial Times and compered by Phillipe Sands where an audience is shocked at the defence of his father by Horst but also by the friendship between Niklas and Horst despite their differing viewpoints. Sands takes both men to a burial site a mile outside Lviv, Ukraine, which was in the province of Galicia. On August 17th (my birth date) 1942 The two German SS Officers put into practice what is known in English as ‘The Great Action’ where thousands of Jews were walked to the edge of a pit and shot in the head and left in massive pits to rot. Of the 80 relatives that Phillipe Sands had living in the capitol of Galicia at the time just one, his great grandfather, survived the German slaying of the Jews. Within months, 75,000 Jews had been executed in that area alone. Niklas is horrified when the three men visit the memorial and states quite angrily to Horst that “our fathers did this”. Horst wants to see documented proof that his father was involved despite his father being the man responsible for the Auxiliary Police that carried the shootings and the Head of Transportation that took Jewish families to the concentration camps.

I have to say that at this point, the denial of Horst some 68 minutes into the documentary, I lost my objectivity, openly wept at the atrocities as they were described, and got angry at what I saw in Horst, who I found only a step away from being a holocaust denier, and it was some 45 minutes before I could return to the film and watch the final 22 minutes, albeit objectivity still severely dented.

Horst von Wächter seems to take refuge in the idea that his father had good character and was against what the Nazi’s were doing, a view backed up when a visit to Ukrainian version of his father’s unit that still operate an anti-Russian brigade in today’s struggles where Otto von Wächter is hero worshipped. I’m not sure what I feel about Horst. I don’t know if this is a man who ran away from reality many decades earlier, a man that just can’t see that a member of his family could contain this much evil, or whether he is in fact just a closet Nazi. I think he is a brave man for taking part in the documentary and seeing some of his childhood photographs and early videos are more fascinating than anything you’ll find in your school history lessons. I don’t feel anger at him any more as I did during the film, I feel more pity for him as he doesn’t seem to have been able to move on with his life as well as Niklas has. Perhaps it’s because his father ran away when the liberation forces took control and died under the protection of the Vatican, meaning he never went to trial for actions and was never found guilty for war crimes. On the other hand Niklas Frank’s father Hans was tried. He was arrested, charged with genocide amongst other crimes including stealing Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Lady with Ermine and some Rembrandts and, at the Nuremberg Trials, he was convicted and executed. This offers Niklas some closure, his father’s guilt is fact, and maybe this makes Niklas come across as the more sympathetic of the two men. Horst’s denial in the end leaves Niklas with no choice but to end their friendship.

As a documentary film this is a stunning piece of work. Both sides of the argument are given equal airplay and Phillipe Sands must be commended for not just trying to destroy Horst but for trying to help and educate him. As a film to help history I have not seen many better. The regions in Ukraine and Poland where some of these atrocities took place don’t always get a look in in WWII films, but the stories and people you learn about in this documentary all of a sudden have become the most important in my learning and personal development. The inclusion of Sands personal tale makes the film more intriguing as he comes from the side of loss and is face to face with the sons of the men that nearly wiped his entire family, and yet bears no grudges towards the men, only their fathers and genuinely tries to educate himself about what life was like for them not just for the Jewish people that lived at the time. I cried, openly and audibly weeping, I became angry, I became fascinated, I became educated, and this documentary will never leave me. If you have an interest in the period, or in the outcome of that opening statement, and have a stomach strong enough for what you will go through then I cannot recommend this film any higher.

Image - BFI.